Tag Archives: writing craft

Writer’s block, or wooing that errant muse

We’ve all had it (or, at least, those writers among us have). Those days when the words just don’t come, whatever you try; days that turn into a week, two weeks, and suddenly the pressure to write is adding to the problem, weighing you down with a sense of failure, of literary impotence.

It just won’t happen, and you know you’ve got it: writer’s block.

Okay, so let’s break that down a bit. What do we mean by writer’s block? What exactly is it that’s just not happening?

Starting blocks

The image that comes to mind straight away when you mention the dreaded WB is that blank page: either fed into the maw of a lovely old Corona typewriter, or the blank screen, a new Word file with that blinking line, just waiting for your words. Come on, type something, dammit!

That blank white canvas is pretty scary, isn’t it? It certainly is for me, particularly if I know I have something like a mere hundred thousand words to go. So skip that stage. Just as a sprinter’s starting block (see what I did there?) is a launch pad, so too should a writer use all the aids necessary to make that blank canvas less daunting, and more inviting.

A simple thing: my manuscript template has dummy text in the header (‘title goes here’ by Keith Brooke, and then the page number), and the opening page has my contact details at the top, and then a nice big bit of dummy text where the title will go. If you have a title already that’s great: put it in here. Your blank canvas is now the structure that will hold your story. If you don’t have a title, it doesn’t matter: look at that blank canvas and there are words on it, it’s not just a white void.

Another thing I do is have some working notes in my manuscript, even if it’s just a couple of lines about the scene I’m currently writing (but usually it’s more). So, right from the outset, I’m almost never faced with a blank page: it’s busy, it’s full of words, and that makes it so much easier to write yet more words. It sounds silly, but it works.

The opening sentence

I try to know the opening sentence before I open that new file with the not-blank first page. Then, even if I’ve written it down in my notes, I won’t copy and paste: I’ll type it afresh when I start the story. Sometimes it’ll be the same, sometimes I’ll tweak. But nearly always, the act of typing invites more words to follow: another sentence, the second paragraph, more.

Still no opening sentence? Who cares? Write what you do know: don’t worry if the opening sentence sucks, just start writing the scene. You can always return and fix the opening later; what matters is getting those words down.

Arse (aka ass) to seat

How awful is it to be sitting in your writing chair and not writing? If you know you’re struggling, it feels far better to just not sit there so you’re not confronted with it. After all, the grass needs cutting, the dinner needs preparing, the stairs need vacuuming the spare room needs painting the kettle needs descaling the gutters need clearing the car needs washing the aardvark needs…

There are so many ways to scratch that ugly arse rather than just applying it to your seat and writing.

But you’re waiting for your muse! Of course you are. I remember at one of my first ever science-fiction conventions, standing at the bar with Kim Newman as he advised the then-newby Nicola Griffith that professional writers never have that luxury: we sit down, we write. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it doesn’t, and often on those extra-sucky days we suddenly hit our stride and do some good stuff.

Hey, maybe the way to track down that errant muse is to sit down where it expects to find you and start doing what it’s supposed to influence! Just a thought.

The business of writing

So many things get in the way, right? Every writer is running a business, and that involves a lot of things that aren’t actually writing.

All that promotional tweeting, all the networking with authors and editors on Facebook and Google Plus, the pictures you really need to post for your follower on Pinterest. The blogging…

Oh, hang on: we’re talking distractions here, not blocks. I know all this stuff can get in the way, but when I’m writing I try to treat social media like the office water cooler: take a break, have a chat with someone, catch up on the gossip, then back to my desk. If you can’t do that, then how about, you know, switching the fuckers off for an hour or two? The world won’t stop.

Research

That’s a good one. How could anyone question the assertion that you need to do just a bit more research before you start writing? Hell, even you believe it sometimes, don’t you?

Putting a block to writer’s block

We all love that whole suffering artist thing. Or maybe we don’t. Maybe it’s a bit annoying sometimes.

Yes, writing is creative, it’s artistic, and sometimes it’s harder than others. Maybe the more artsy among you might not like what comes next, but really, have you ever heard of plumber’s block? Or nurse’s block? Or teacher’s block?

Calling it a block might make it sound more arty; it might make you feel like you’re living the life of an artist, suffering for your work. But call it procrastination or distraction and suddenly it sounds more like work avoidance than anything remotely artsy.

Yes I’ve had times when I’ve been unable to write. There have been times when I’ve been on medications that just slow everything down and remove the urge to be creative; times when I’ve been so stressed by stuff going on elsewhere in my life that writing has fallen down the priorities list; times when I just can’t be arsed.

And I’ve had times when it would be very easy to say that I’ve been blocked, but I’ve always tried not to fall back on that. To me, it’s a cop-out. At times like that I’m not blocked, I’m choosing not to write, for whatever reasons. And when you get like that, there are lots of things you can do to try to get the words flowing again. Unless, of course, that seems too much like treating writing as a job and you’re too arty for that, darling, and you prefer to sit back and woo your errant muse.

So: you’ve got writer’s block? Well it’s time for some tough love. So sit down, and bloody well write, and then you can complain about how you suffer for your art and it’ll sound a whole lot more authentic.


Snapshots: Stephen Volk interviewed

Whitstable by Stephen VolkQ: Just published by Spectral Press is your new novella, Whitstable, a creepily disturbing mixing of fact and fiction that pays homage to the Hammer House of Horror and the Gentle Man of Horror, Peter Cushing. Why Hammer? Why Cushing?

Because the idea centres around a young boy who needs a monster-hunter, and to me a monster-hunter is Van Helsing – and Van Helsing is Peter Cushing! It’s really as simple as that. The idea of the boy came first, a boy who is the victim of harm of the most despicable kind, and the only way he can assimilate it and deal with it is through the metaphor of fiction. Of the horror films he watches. The only kind of evil he understands is the vampire and the only hope he can expect is that of a vampire-hunter. The surface lore of the story is all about the horror genre I love – but underneath that, it is about real horror, the horrors of real life.

Having said that, I wouldn’t have become so excited about the story if it wasn’t about my favourite actor and my favourite film company. I grew up on Hammer films, and in many ways their mythos has informed everything I’ve wanted to write since – it certainly contributed to my wanting to become a horror movie writer. When I saw names such as Tudor Gates or Jimmy Sangster on the screen, I always thought: how brilliant would it to be to have that job, to dream up stories like this and be paid for it? So I was happy that my idea for “Whitstable” allowed me to indulge in my passion for the films of that era and, more importantly (if I got it right) pay an incalculable debt of gratitude to Peter Cushing, the actor who made many of those films so vivid and unforgettable.

Q: Given that this story centres around a rather well-known actor, did you feel constrained by needing to stick to the facts and the desire to pay tribute to Cushing, or was it more the case that fiction freed you to do so?

I knew I had to go as far as possible to get it to feel right. I knew I was putting him in a fictional situation, so there was a point where research runs out and my imagination or skill has to take over – and that is the fun of it, and the challenge. To worry about whether people might pick holes in this or that detail would completely stymie me, so I tried to forget about that. First of all I had to please myself and feel I’d done a good job. A case in point (spoiler!) is that I was wondering how Cushing could defeat his nemesis. I found it impossible that he would kill or be violent to the antagonist: it simply didn’t feel in character, even in fiction, to do that – and I felt desperately that even though this is fiction, it had to be plausible. The good thing is that the solution to this was much more fitting to the story – it really added another layer, which is that Cushing finds the strength to stand up to this monster, and in doing so, destiny takes over. Fate takes a hand. He doesn’t cause the ending physically, but somehow that seemed better, to me. Like his moral strength had nevertheless vanquished the enemy.

Q: How important is sense of place to you in your work?

I think in most stories specificity is important. Well, authenticity is important. If you are trying to convince the reader or viewer that something weird or outlandish really happened, the trappings of real life are often useful to give a feeling of realism, in a way. If somebody lights a Silk Cut rather than a cigarette. All those touches – not to belabour them, obviously – add to the feeling this could happen.

Beyond that a sense of place also helps with the symbolism and theme. I’ve always found off-season seaside towns evocative, even ghostly, in their dry, slumbery atmosphere. This was excellent in Don’t Look Now, of course – somehow making the place itself otherworldly. And in “Whitstable” – look, the place is the title, even! – the image of the bereaved man looking out to sea seemed fundamental. There’s something about the constant nature of the sea and our fickle, fragile lives. And then, of course, I thought about the industry there of fishing and fishermen. I didn’t want my “vampire” to be a nobleman or toff, or office worker, or weirdo with pervy glasses – I didn’t know what he could be without it being a cliché. Then I described him as a hippie, very much of 1971, in contrast with the fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned Cushing, and I thought Cushing would probably observe that he looked like Jesus Christ (as people often said of John Lennon). Then, bingo – the connection with being a fisherman was complete. Les Gledhill became the exact reversal of the Saviour that Cushing felt had abandoned him. The themes all came together, largely by thinking about the place.

Q: Official publication date is 26th May, but I believe the hardcover edition has already sold out. What kind of response has Whitstable received?

To be honest it has been beyond my wildest dreams. It got 5 out of 5 stars in SFX magazine and an amazing review in Starburst. I’ve girded my loins for a bad one but there simply hasn’t been, touch wood! I’ve even had some tremendous feedback from people who knew Cushing and are experts on his work – David Pirie, Jonathan Rigby, Wayne Kinsey, to name a few. They’ve all been massively encouraging. But of course it was vital for me to get input from people like that to reassure me I’d “caught” the great actor convincingly. I’m happy to report that, to a man, they reported I had. Director Mick Garris and critic Kim Newman have also said they love it. I feel a bit humbled by the positive response, to be absolutely truthful.

Q: What brought you to horror fiction?

Growing up with Hammer, with comics, with Famous Monsters of Filmland. Gravitating to Pan and Poe and Stephen King. I think it is a familiar route, except for some bizarre reason I didn’t particularly want to be a novelist, I wanted to write movies. I picked up a paperback of the screenplay of Westworld just after it came out, and that was my Bible. I actually loved the screenplay form. I loved seeing films in my head. The only way to do it.

Q: As well as prose fiction, you’re a successful scriptwriter for TV and film. What makes an idea a book or short story, rather than a TV or film proposal and script?

A short story is a succinct idea with a definite voice that you can bite off as whole, I find. You know how to do it. A film is simply a drama of definite length with dramatisable action and good roles. A TV show is a proposition – a set-up with open-ended possibilities: an engine that can run and run. The format, the way it works as a drama, is everything – and that can take months or years to work out. Even Call the Midwife, which you’d think would be a no-brainer, was in development at the BBC for ages. That’s what people don’t realise about TV when they watch it, and it works or it doesn’t work. It takes bloody forever!

Of course, some ideas are perfectly suitable as a film or a novel, so there’s malleability sometimes. One idea that I’ve just had turned down by a broadcaster I might turn into a proposal for a series of books – I don’t know. You can waste an awful lot of time re-circulating ideas and sometimes it’s better just to ramp up new ones. But you don’t want to waste that perfectly good idea just because that one person didn’t get, either.

Short stories for me are “instant gratification” – and I do it for love, certainly not money. I can tell a story exactly as I want it, and it gets in a book. That is a very welcome contrast to films, which take five, ten years to get into production – if they get produced at all. I can spend a year on a TV script and even then only six people will ever read it before it’s rejected and that’s that. So it’s very soul-destroying at times. I write short fiction because I’ve got to write stories and I have to get them out there, and getting a story accepted in an anthology, as happened today, can be just as much of a thrill as having a big screen movie released. It sounds insane – but it’s true!

Q: What has scriptwriting brought to your prose fiction?

Planning. And not planning! I’m punctilious about organising my thoughts on a screenplay because a script is about concision – less is more. It’s about structuring the scenes and what happens within the scenes, and that is 99% of the work. Thinking, not typing. So I bring a sense of structure to story writing, I think, and a sense of dialogue and subtext, which you would expect.

Paradoxically, though, what I like in writing fiction is what you don’t do in screenplays which is the voice, the voice of the story or the tone of the narrator, be it first or third person. I also enjoy that fiction can meander – you can go “off piste” with little thoughts or big thoughts, but in film it is all about the spine and forward motion. Then again the reverse is true and I like to think that the freedom I have in fiction filters back in to my scripts, and I’ve learnt there are no rules – break them, divert, do whatever the hell you like. They can’t shoot you for it.

AfterlifeQ: What are the highlights of your writing career to date?

Wow. Tough one. Most enjoyable moments? Walking along the South Bank after the premiere of Gothic at the old NFT. Felt I was walking on air that night. Felt like it was all taking off (…but of course it wasn’t!). Being with Lesley Sharp and everyone at the Royal Television Society Awards when she picked up Best Actress for Afterlife. That was very special. And of course, the night I collected a BAFTA for writing the short film The Deadness of Dad starring Rhys Ifans. I stood on stage between Sean Connery and Sigourney Weaver. I’ve never been so excited in my life! Unless you count going to a party at Carrie Fisher’s house in LA and lining up for barbecue chicken next to Harrison Ford, Danny De Vito and Jack Nicolson! That was pretty nuts!

Q: What are you working on now?

I’m head down in a new series for BBCTV. Early days yet. But I’m very excited about it. And quite a few spinning plates with TV and film companies, including Playtime, a script I’ve written with Tim Lebbon, and Telepathy – which I hope will get its financing confirmed at Cannes and be filming later this year. On the fiction front I’ve stories coming out in a Professor Challenger anthology soon, in Beyond Rue Morgue (Titan), in Terror Tales of the Seaside (Gray Friar) and in The Burning Circus (BFS Publications). I’m also hoping to hear news soon about a second collection, my follow-up to Dark Corners. Which is very exciting.

Q: Describe your typical writing day.

Yikes. Must I? I’m a chronically slow starter and mornings are useless (unless I’m on a deadline) – paperwork, noodling, the inevitable emails, and coffee. Afternoons, I get stuck in, but I’m at my most productive in the evening and night time. If I had no family or social life I’d probably work from 4pm to 2am. But a lot of writing happens when you’re not writing. You’re never off work because problems and ideas are always percolating. They come together when they need to. I get panicky if I haven’t sat at my desk for a certain number of hours, but the work always gets done. Though doing 10 pages a day on a script is different kind of work than working on a treatment or outline, which is different from rewriting, which is different from writing memos or notes or having meetings, or pitching. There is no typical day!

Q: What would you draw attention to from your back-list?

The best of my drama is probably Afterlife. The best of my fiction is possibly “Whitstable”. But others might tell me differently. In terms of “back-back” list I’d like the old BBC series Ghosts to be released on DVD – I wrote two of those, and they weren’t bad. Is Network TV listening?

Q: Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?

I’ve just read Joel Lane’s collection Where Furnaces Burn, which is marvellous. I loved Mark Morris’s latest collection from PS too. And of course Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairytale. And Stephen Gallagher’s The Bedlam Detective. One of the joys of joining the community of writers in the independent genre press or via the BFS (British Fantasy Society) is that I now count all the above people as my friends. I’d also like to plug Pain Cages, a great collection by Paul Kane, for which wrote the introduction.  And for no personal reason other than it’s brilliant, I’d recommend Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson.

Q: If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?

First of all, if you are a genre writer interested in Horror, SF or Fantasy, join the British Fantasy Society. Then, I’d say:

Perseverance + Talent = Luck

You can’t do anything about your innate Talent (you’re either a storyteller or you aren’t) but you can work on the Perseverance part. And make sure when Luck comes along you are ready for it because you’ve been working your arse off!

Whitstable by Stephen VolkMore…

Stephen Volk is best known as the creator of the TV drama series Afterlife and the notorious 1992 BBC “Halloween hoax” Ghostwatch. His screenplays include The Awakening starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, Ken Russell’s Gothic and The Guardian directed by William Friedkin. He has been a finalist for the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards, and his short fiction has been selected for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best New Horror and Best British Mysteries

And more:

 


By the seat of my pants…

So, Aethernet, the self-billed magazine of serial fiction. Great idea, great execution, great line-up (for starters they’re running the sequel to Chris Beckett’s Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden, long before its book publication).

So, me: taking a self-proclaimed from science fiction, sick of being messed around by the business side of things in particular, dealing with lots of other shit in the meantime.

Those two… well, they just don’t fit, do they?

Particularly when the lovely people at Aethernet kept reminding me about my invitation to contribute. And when the spec fic part of my imagination has been all fired up again by my Philip K Dick Award shortlisting earlier this year.

So, Memento: a set of four stories about one cataclysmic event on an alien planet. An idea that came pretty much fully-formed in a dream, although now it’s finding its own path in the writing.

Serial fiction: adventure, cliffhangers, real seat of the pants stuff. Which is exactly how I’m writing it: I know where I’m heading, but Hell there’s a lot to fill in! I’m digging myself deep, setting myself – and my characters – challenges and cliffhangers, and working it out with them as I go along.

I rarely write like this; I usually need to know more. But this is fun, it’s exhilarating.

And I hope it will be for readers, too.


On rewriting

Great stories aren’t written; they’re rewritten.

Maybe that’s a cliche, but that’s because it’s generally true. Very few writers are slick enough that they can get away with an unpolished first draft (okay, journalists are a class of very specifically-skilled writers who often have to do this, but I’m talking about my kind here, the ones who have the luxury to take more time over their lovingly crafted prose); many won’t even let anyone else see their first drafts because they’re aware of just how much needs fixing. I’m definitely in that category: I hate it when an agent or editor asks me to just send over my first draft when it’s ready. For me that’s like the dream where you’re out in public in your pyjamas or your underwear and suddenly everyone is looking and pointing.

I don’t want people to see how bad a writer I can be!

So what kinds of things should you look for when you’re doing your best to cover up how bad a writer you can be?

Of course, we’re all different. Most writers cut their first drafts, often quite drastically. I’ve always tended to under-write, though, so while careful pruning is nearly always required I’ve learned also to look for those places where I’ve skimped and which need to be given a bit more space.

Here’s a checklist of things that I look for (ignoring the obvious things like spelling, grammar, punctuation, typos, continuity and so on). Some of them may work for you, too.

  • Should I show or should I tell?
    This is one of those things that can make a big difference to your word count, not to mention the quality of your story. In my case, I’ll find passages that I’ve skipped through by telling the reader something instead of describing the scene so that the reader sees it. Usually, showing takes more space than telling, which is more of a precis of a scene. Looking for these passages that need more space, dramatising those elements where in my first draft I’ve just summarised – that’s where a lot of the dramatic tension comes from, and for me, rewriting is very much about making the highs higher, the lows lower, and the tension tensioner. 
  • Yawn…
    Conversely, there are always scenes that don’t pull their weight. Am I skim-reading as I go through my story? If so, is this because I haven’t made the most of a scene (see above), or because I’ve made too much of it? Sometimes you have to describe the little girl approaching the ancient, cobweb-covered door and reaching for the handle even though she’s always been told not to open that door… and sometimes you just want to say “Lucy opened the door and went outside”. It all depends on the story, and the effect you’re trying to achieve.
  • Cut brutally, mercilessly and effectively
    And any other adverb. When my old friend and collaborator Eric Brown lived a lot closer to me than he does now, I used to drag him down to my university to do guest writer sessions with my students. One of the tips that students and ex-students have reminded me of most often is very simple: when you think your manuscript is just about done, do a search for “ly”. That will pin down almost every adverb in the piece (are there adverbs that don’t end in -ly?), and 90% of the time you can cut those adverbs without detracting from the story, and nearly always you’re improving it. The improvement comes either from the simple fact that the adverb added nothing in the first place, or from the way it forces you to make sure you’re using the most precise, appropriate verb. Adverbs encourage you to use lazy verbs. Why write “he ran quickly” when he could just have sprinted? The “quickly” has not only – ironically – slowed things down, it’s encouraged you to use a dull verb instead of one that is more specific. Again, why write “he burst into the room explosively”, when bursting into the room is more than enough? (Or even “exploded into the room” if you really want to use that image.)
  • Amplify!
    As I said above, getting slightly ahead of myself, one of the main things I look for when I’m rewriting is the opportunity to make the highs higher, the lows lower… to amplify things. Twenty years ago, Stephen Baxter read through the manuscript of my third novel for me, and one of the most useful things he said was that I should remember what I did to the protagonist of my first novel: in that novel I’d succeeded in taking my protagonist right down to the lowest of lows before building him back up again; in the manuscript Steve had just read, he told me I should do the same again – take Katya low, before bringing her back up again; make readers care, and they always care more when the stakes are higher, the risks and costs greater. The result was a character who took centre stage in a book with three main viewpoints, and one of my favourites of all my characters.
  • Recombine
    Maybe a flat scene still has something to contribute, in which case the obvious solution is to rework it until it’s earning its keep. And one way to rework it is to combine it with another scene. What is it that that particular scene contributes to the story? Can’t that happen in the scene before or the scene after? The same goes for characters, particularly in short fiction where every prominent character really has to justify their existence. Could the guy in scene one who helps the victim also be the witness brought in three scenes later? Making those two entirely separate characters might, of course, be more true to life, but true to life means messier, more confusing, more complicated. Sometimes a story will work far better if you’re more economical with your characters: recycle, reuse, recombine.
  • Shake, baby, shake!
    That scene that persists in being a bit flat? That character who never shakes of the two-dimensionality of the page? Sometimes you can analyse and work out exactly where the problem lies. Other times… well, other times you just have to suck it and see. If that scene in the restaurant doesn’t work (just how many scenes have we seen in restaurants and bars?), then put your characters in the queue waiting to go in, getting soaked by the rain and hassled by people who want their place in the queue. That character who really just makes you yawn? Well, simple and crude, but why not make the girl a boy, or the boy a girl, make the young man a wizened old leper. Totally change some aspect of that person and suddenly you have to reassess everything, from simple descriptions to your understanding of why they are now standing in the middle of that scene with a gun and a hostage, surrounded by aliens in long black coats. Okay, I’m getting carried away, but that scene is totally different if the central character is a young girl out of her depth, a heroic – and probably rather bland – action hero, or that old leper. Shake things up and make them interesting again!
  • Incomplete sentences
    I see this so often, both in my own writing and in the work of students. A sentence that’s not quite complete, a sentence that dispenses with connectors like ‘and’ and ‘the’. Sometimes this kind of thing can work well for effect, but only when used sparingly. More often than not, it interrupts the flow and forces the reader to re-read to make sure they haven’t missed something. Isaac Asimov used to talk about transparent prose, writing that is like a sheet of glass that you look through, rather than, say, a stained glass window that you can’t. While I’d argue that there’s a place for flashy, clever, lit’ry sentences (some of my favourite writing would fall into that category, and I’ve even – much to my surprise – been accused of committing literature), there’s also a lot of value in Asimov’s argument. Indeed, if you look at any great prose stylist, it’s a fairly safe bet that most of them use a hell of a lot of transparent sentences to wrap around the pyrotechnics. We just don’t see them. What I aim for is exactly that: transparent prose that works, with the occasional perfect phrase or metaphor that will resonate. And clunky, failed, arty sentences ain’t that.

Oh, there are probably a lot more things that I look for and find, but these are the main ones that I’m aware of, developed from a couple of decades or so of getting familiar with my own bad writing and trying to make it better. What are your  failings? What do you look for to make sure you’re not going to be that person out on the High Street in his or her underwear with everyone pointing and staring?


The return of the serial story

Serial fiction is not exactly a new form. Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Henry James, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle… they were all at it a long, long time ago. In the last few decades the serial story has been very much out of favour. Indeed, in most genres short fiction itself has dwindled to almost non-existence.

The Ragged People: a story of the post-plague years - post-apocalypse fiction from Nick GiffordShort science fiction has persisted, and while short stories often return to previously-used characters and settings, true serial fiction has been a rarity.

Is the rise of the ebook changing this?

Perhaps.

Serial fiction, and short fiction, have generally been viewed by commercial publishers as dead areas, but one significant change with the advent of e-publishing has been the rise of the long tail: previously unviable niches are now sustainable, with production costs minimised and global reach maximised.

For the writer, serial fiction is an intriguing proposition.

For starters, the form is different. Serial fiction isn’t just a novel cut into shorter blocks and published at intervals. With a novel, the reader has generally invested up front and is more likely to give a book a chance. With serial fiction, readers have only invested one episode at a time: if that chunk doesn’t deliver, and if it doesn’t hook the reader, then why should the reader bother with subsequent episodes? Think of serial TV drama: most aim for that Eastenders ending, the set-up for a big revelation or dramatic conflict that the viewer can’t afford to miss and then, duh, duh, d-d-duh the theme music kicks in.

Some writers will wing it with their serial fiction: write an episode, wait until it has been published and then write the next one – real seat-of-the-pants writing. Others take a more planned approach. But however you do it, the considerations are different, and for me that makes it fun.

It also lets you try new things. You’ll often find that writers really push the limits with their short fiction, while their novel-length work plays it a bit safer. This is partly a result of commercial pressures, of course, but is also because a one-off short story gives you the opportunity to push boundaries; failure with a short story does not usually end careers.

Serial fiction lies somewhere in between: in my Ragged People serial (written for teenagers with my Nick Gifford pen-name), I’ve started with a fairly self-contained story. I have some ideas for what will happen next, I have characters I want to write about, and I’d love to carry on, but then there are lots of writing projects I’d like to work on. By publishing the first story I can gauge response before committing to writing more. (Or, of course, I can ignore response and just plough on regardless…) My hope is that I’ll keep getting nudged for more episodes until I find that I’ve written a novel, almost by accident.

The new Aethernet Magazine showcases serial fiction from some fabulous writers (Eric Brown, Chris Becket and Tony Ballantyne for starters) taking a variety of approaches, from the carefully plotted to the winging it approach, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops. What’s more the Aethernet blog is publishing interviews with the authors about their approaches to serial fiction, which promises to be particularly interesting for writers interested in the form – most recently Chris Beckett, talking about his serialised sequel to Dark Eden (shortlisted for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award).

As a writer, it’s great to see serial fiction getting a new opportunity. Let’s just hope that readers find it just as exciting!


Snapshots: David D Levine interviewed

Space Magic by David D LevineWhat are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a YA Regency Interplanetary Airship Adventure. (Yes, another one of those. Sorry.) It takes place during the English Regency in a world in which the solar system is full of air and it’s possible to travel to Mars and Venus by airship. Naturally both of those planets are inhabited. My main character, Arabella Ashby, is a young woman who was born and raised on Mars but was recently hauled back to Earth by her mother, who didn’t want her youngest daughters growing up surrounded by aliens and turning out as wild as Arabella. Arabella, child of the frontier, is a Patrick O’Brian girl in a Jane Austen world; she’s stifled by England’s gravity, climate, and culture and dearly misses her father and brother, who remain on Mars. When her father dies and she learns her evil cousin plans to travel to Mars to kill her brother and inherit the family fortune, she disguises herself as a boy and joins the crew of a fast merchant ship in hopes of beating him there. But pirates, mutiny, and rebellion intervene. Will she reach her brother in time?

This novel takes place in the same universe as my story “The Wreck of the Mars Adventure” in Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, which will be published in October.

What have you recently finished?
My most recently completed short story, titled “Goat Eyes,” is based on a question that has been kicking around the back of my head for years. Suppose you — the actual you, in the real world — discovered that vampires actually exist. How would this affect your life going forward? How would it change your behavior and worldview? This story is currently under consideration at an anthology.

What’s recently or soon out?
My short story collection Space Magic will be out on January 15 from Book View Café. This collection of 15 science fiction and fantasy stories won the Endeavour Award, for the best SF or Fantasy book by a Pacific Northwest writer, when it came out in paperback a few years ago, and now it’s available as an ebook from all the major ebook stores as well as directly from bookviewcafe.com. This is my first venture into e-publishing, and if it is successful there will be more.

In addition to the collection itself, $5.99 for all 15 stories, I’m also making the stories available for 99¢ each, following the iTunes singles-and-album model. It turns out that creating and uploading a single-story ebook is almost exactly as much work as a full novel ebook, so the work involved in doing it this way was much greater than I’d anticipated. I hope it pays off. If nothing else, I think, having 16 titles in the bookstores will make it more likely that people will find me than if there were just one.

Describe your typical writing day.
Lately I’ve been spending a lot more time on what my friend Jay Lake calls “writing-related program activities” such as e-publishing, promotion, and submission than I have on the actual writing. This kind of stuff can take up a surprising amount of time. For example, when a short story is rejected (and yes, I get rejections all the time) I often find that it takes an hour or more to decide where to send it next. Even though I have a spreadsheet with a list of markets to submit each story to, a lot of the time when I go to submit I discover that a market is temporarily or permanently closed or I already have a story in submission there. So then I need to research markets, see if there are any new ones, and determine which of the currently-available markets is the best fit for this story. So just at the moment my typical “writing” day doesn’t involve any writing at all! I hope to change this in the new year.

What would you draw attention to from your back-list?
Although “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the Hugo Award and has been translated into seven languages, the story I am proudest of is “The Tale of the Golden Eagle.” That’s the only story I’ve ever written that made me cry. Both of them are now available as ebooks, as part of Space Magic and as individual stories.

Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
Tobias Buckell is a fine writer who is doing excellent work straddling the divide between self-publishing and traditional publishing; Mary Robinette Kowal is an inspiration to me with her broad range of long and short fiction and her selfless work with SFWA; and Jay Lake is a good friend and extremely talented writer who doesn’t let his serious health issues get in his way.

If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Write. Finish what you write. Submit it to a paying market. Keep submitting until it sells.

In this modern world, “submit” may mean to self-publish and “until it sells” may mean “until it sells enough copies to make you happy,” but, at this point in the evolution of the industry, whether to self-publish or seek traditional publication is a personal decision. But the basic idea of continuing to write, finishing what you start, and putting it out there for people to buy has not changed.

So… the easy one: what’s the future of publishing? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading?
I anticipate that the current free-for-all will not last. We are in a period of chaos right now, with the former “Big Six” New York publishers losing control of the industry they used to dominate, and individual writers can make a big splash. But large corporations always win out in the end (look at the fate of small independent bookstores, video stores, coffee shops, and gas stations in the past decades). In five or ten years there will be a new Big Six of publishing, and I expect that four of them will be Amazon, Google, Apple, and Wal-Mart.

What will readers be reading? Same as today: most people will read bestsellers, based on recommendations from their friends and trusted media sources, but a significant minority will seek out quirky independent works that match their idiosyncratic tastes. The latter readers are the ones I’m writing for.

What are you most excited about?
I have been working on a video based on my story “Letter to the Editor” in the forthcoming anthology The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, edited by John Joseph Adams. It will be going live on January 21 and I think people will like it a lot. I am also extremely excited by my new web page, www.daviddlevine.com, which looks fantastic.

More…
Space Magic by David D Levine

David D. Levine is the author of over fifty published science fiction and fantasy stories. His work has appeared in markets including Asimov’s, Analog,F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy and has won or been nominated for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Campbell. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Kate Yule, with whom he co-edits the fanzine Bento. His web page is at www.daviddlevine.com.

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Garry Kilworth: an extract from On My Way To Samarkand – memoirs of a travelling writer

On my way to Samarkand - memoirs of a travelling writer, by Garry Douglas KilworthHere’s a traveller’s tale set in Thailand. We wanted to journey by train from Bangkok to Chang Mai on an overnight sleeper train. Just obtaining the ticket turned the clock back to a time when Rudyard Kipling was in his youth. First we obtained a number at a kiosk. We took that number, just a simple figure like 8 or 9, to an office where a man wrote our names in a great ledger. We then went to another office where we were assigned seats and canvas bunk beds that unrolled from the side of the carriage. Finally, we went to the last office, where we were issued with tickets for the 6 pm train to Chang Mai.

We were excited. This was our first long rail trip in the Far East.

At quarter-to-six that evening we boarded a train which said ‘Bangkok to Chang Mai’ on the side in big letters. The platform from which it was leaving was registered on both our tickets. We stowed our luggage, sat in our seats and were delighted to be served curry from a man who had a portable paraffin stove set up in the linked bit between the next carriage and ours. We had especially opted for no air conditioning, because we like the climate of Thailand and don’t like to freeze.

The train pulled out at precisely 6 pm.

Once out in the countryside we would stop only at the odd station, but on the edge of Bangkok there were a number of suburban halts where people could board. At about 7 pm a Thai family entered our carriage. There was dad, mum and two children. The mild-looking man confronted us, inspected his own tickets, and said politely, ‘Madam and sir, you are in our seats.’

I took out our tickets, looked at the seat numbers, checked the carriage number, and shook my head.

‘I’m sorry, you’ve made a mistake. These are our seats.’

He shrugged and showed me his tickets. I showed him mine. They were identical. Damn railway clerks, I thought. They’ve either sold the seats twice, or made a stupid error. All those ledgers too! You would think the system infallible with so much bureaucracy.

‘I must fetch the ticket inspector,’ said the Thai gentleman. ‘He’ll know what to do.’

‘Good idea,’ I replied, safe in the knowledge that possession was nine tenths of the law. ‘He’ll sort it out.’

In the meantime I offered my seat to the man’s wife and Annette chatted to the two children.

The ticket inspector turned out to be a corpulent official covered in gold lanyards, medals and scrambled egg. He looked like an amiable general in Thailand’s army. However, he was accompanied by a lean narrow-eyed lieutenant who wore a gun at his hip. This one looked like an officer in the Vietcong, the one from the movie The Deerhunter who keeps yelling, ‘Wai! Wai! Wai!’ or some such word into the ear of Robert de Niro. This man’s hand never left his gun butt as he stared at me from beneath the slanted peak of his immaculate cap.

Neither of these rail officials spoke English.

The ticket inspector studied all the tickets on show and then spoke softly to the gentleman with the nice family.

‘He wants to know,’ said the gentleman, turning to me, ‘why you are on the wrong train?’

We were nonplussed. Stunned.

‘What wrong train?’ I argued. ‘This is the 6 pm from Bangkok to Chang Mai, isn’t it?’

‘No,’ came the calm reply, ‘this is the 3 pm from Bangkok to Chang Mai, running late as usual.’

‘What? You mean…’

‘All trains run late here, sir. The 6 pm will still be standing in the station. The ticket inspector says you will have to get off at the next station and wait for your right train.’

Annette and I stared out of the window at the blackness rushing by. The jungle stations we swept through had no lights whatsoever. They were deep pits of darkness in a world of slightly lesser darkness. I had visions of standing on one of those rickety wooden platforms trying to flag down an express. It was scary. Too scary to contemplate. I’m sure the people who lived near those stations were perfectly respectable citizens, but the night-time jungle does things with the imagination. There was no way we were going to get off our train, now that we were rattling towards Chang Mai.

Through our gentleman translator we managed to persuade the inspector to let us stay on the train. At first he wanted to sell us first class tickets to the air conditioned compartments. When that didn’t work – Annette digging in her heels – he found us similar seats to the ones we already had. It occurred to me he could have done that in the first place, but since all was well that ended well, I really didn’t care.

There is a post script to this short tale.

To avoid any repetition of this near horror story, we chose to return to Bangkok by a reliable bus. Annette and I boarded the coach to find our booked seats occupied by two young men in orange robes. Conscript monks. It seems that Thai men are expected to spend one year in the army and then one year as a Buddhist monk. During that latter year they are apparently entitled to all sorts of privileges, such as nicking booked seats with impunity. They are untouchable in that sense. These two refused even to make eye contact with us.

They wouldn’t budge. They knew their rights.

A fierce woman conductor intervened. She told Annette and me to ‘get off the bus’. We informed her we had tickets for the seats these two oranges were occupying. We were not going to leave. Other passengers began to get restless. The driver started looking panicky. Finally he came to us with his hands clasped as if in prayer and said, ‘Sir, Madam, I beseech you. I implore with you to understand my problem and leave the bus.’ We sighed, gave up and got off the vehicle. It’s a tough man who can withstand a Thai beseeching, I can tell you. Tougher than me, anyway. We collected our luggage from underneath the bus and waited for another coach. Hopefully Chang Mai had run out of monks and we could get back to Bangkok on the next one. And where do Thai bus drivers learn English words like ‘beseech’? I guarantee half the population of the English-speaking world doesn’t use that word. He had probably read Chaucer and Piers Ploughman, while all I know of the Thai language is ‘Good day’.

On My Way To Samarkand is available in ebook and print editions:

On my way to Samarkand - memoirs of a travelling writer, by Garry Douglas Kilworthebook:
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print:
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